Saturday, June 7, 2003

New Z unlike the old Z

Price may be right, but features lacking

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer Contributor

Nissan 350Z
Nissan 350Z

Nissan's 350Z looks like a million bucks from the outside and has a powerful engine under the hood.

Wheels rating:
Budget-priced, but inside too plastic

Vital statistics

What I drove: 2003 Nissan 350Z, Track model with 6-speed manual transmission

Base price range: $26,269 to $34,079

Price as tested: $37,513 (with destination charge)

Options on test vehicle: Floor mats, splash guards, aluminum kick plates, curtain and side-impact airbags, trunk mat, DVD navigation system

Engine: 3.5-liter V6 producing 287 hp and 274 foot-pounds torque

Drivetrain: front engine, rear-wheel drive

Wheelbase: 104.3 inches

Length: 169.7 inches

Width: 71.5 inches

Height: 51.9 inches

Weight: 3,188 to 3,247 pounds

EPA mpg, city/hwy: 20/26

Warranty: basic: 3 years/36,000 miles; drivetrain: 5 years/60,000 miles

Safety stuff: standard dual-stage front airbags, seat belt pretensioners, anti-lock brakes; available side-impact and head curtain airbags, traction control, vehicle dynamics control

Cool stuff: Look-at-me styling; great performance-to-price ratio; the best V6 engine around; and a roadster version coming this summer

Uncool stuff: Cheap plastic interior, no glove box, harsh ride (especially Track version), heat-generating rear window

Accolades: Automobile magazine's Car of the Year for 2003

more info go to . . .

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Car Talk
May 21, '03

Dear Diary,

Sorry I haven't written lately, but that's about to change. As of tomorrow, I'll be test driving a Nissan 350Z - that cool sports car that came out last fall. I'm going to record my Z impressions in you every day. That way, when I'm old and gray (and driving a Buick), I can relive my wonderful week in the Z. Got a call from car-crazy cousin Steve today. When I told him I'll be driving a Z this week, he threatened to fly down from Seattle to join me.

May 22, '03

Dear Diary,

Oops! No Z today (scheduling error on my part). Stuart the delivery guy said I'll get it tomorrow for sure. And not just any Z, but the Track model. Jan stopped by and made me promise to drive her in the Z on our "girls night out" tomorrow.

So, I spent the day gathering Z facts for my review.

The original Datsun 240Z came out 33 years ago as a 1970 model. The new 350Z, like the original, is a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive two-seat hatchback. But the new one's got a 3.5-liter V6 engine that puts out 287 hp and 274 foot-pounds of torque, the same engine that powers the Infiniti G35 that I like so much.

Nissan wanted the new 350Z to be high in performance, high in style and low in price - starting at under $30,000. They succeeded beyond their dreams. So far this year, the Z has been the No. 1 selling sports car every month, except one month when GM offered zero-percent financing on the Corvette.

The Z comes in five trim levels: Base, Enthusiast, Performance, Touring and Track. The Base is the cheapest, starting at only $26,269, and the models get progressively more equipped and expensive from there. Sixty percent of buyers opt for the cushy Touring model, which is the only Z that comes with power and heated leather seats. The Track is the highest-performance and most expensive model (only 8 percent opt for this). At $34,079, it comes with vehicle dynamics control, a rear spoiler, 18-inch wheels, low-profile tires and vented Brembo brakes.

Z buyer profile: 35-year-old, college-educated, "professional" guy with a household income of $75,000.

OK, enough facts already. Let's drive the car.

May 23

Dear Diary,

What a letdown. It was like walking into Fred Segal on Melrose and finding myself in . . . . Wal-Mart. Plastic all around. Not just plastic, but cheap, brittle plastic. When I pressed a button to open what I thought was the glove box, a wimpy plastic cup holder tried to pop out but got all tangled up. When I pushed the button to open the navigation system cover, it slid off its tracks and got stuck halfway. Sheesh! I expected way more than this.

While hunting for the owner's manual I found a storage compartment behind the passenger seat. Not a convenient place for a glove box.

I sat inside the Z studying the interior. The layout is OK, and the instruments and controls are neatly arranged, but the interior feels cold, like something out of The Matrix. And there's this huge expanse of blank space on the door panels. I just want to hang a picture there.

OK, so I drove to Jan's to pick her up. When I asked what she thought of the interior, she said it reminded her of the plastic Habitrail hamster cage she tried to put together but none of the pieces fit.

When we got to the restaurant, we stood outside and critiqued the exterior. Neither of us like the Daytona Blue color, but we like the shape. It looks very "speed racer" and high-tech.

May 24

Dear Diary,

Maybe I should go on the testosterone patch. Talked to Steve this morning, and when I told him the Z's interior looks cheap and unfinished, he said, "Well, if they had to cut corners, at least they didn't scrimp on the performance."

OK. But it's too bad they had to scrimp at all. The interior of the $17,000 Ford Focus has better fit and finish than this. A car's interior should enhance the car's appeal, not diminish it. The interior and exterior should complement each other, as they do in the Mini, the Beetle, the Audi TT and even the PT Cruiser.

May 25

Dear Diary,

I used the Z's navigation system to direct me around town, and it worked great. Trouble was, the engine and tire noise were so loud they drowned out the navigation lady's voice. Plus the ride was so bumpy (must be these low-profile Track tires) I could barely take notes while driving.

Went to the grocery store and stocked up for the Memorial Day block party. Everything fit easily into the hatchback, even with that strange strut brace in the cargo area. Speaking of the hatchback, the rear window lets in so much sun the whole car heats up. I got so hot I wanted to tear off the roof and jump out. So I blasted the AC. Still the ice cream melted. But this car is made for 35-year-old guys, and they don't grocery shop; they carry out. Anyway, I'm looking forward to the Z roadster, which comes out this summer. The top comes off, and it's got a trunk.

May 26

Dear Diary,

Now I know why they call them "muscle cars." I am physically exhausted after driving 70 miles on twisty roads through the Santa Cruz mountains. Unlike Mom's Lexus, which kind of floats you around town, you have to drive the Z; it doesn't drive you.

The steering is responsive but heavy, which is where muscles come in. The 6-speed manual shifts easily and confidently, and the throttle response is crisp. I like driving the Z on the open road; I get crabby driving it in traffic. The Touring model with 5-speed auto would be better for that.

May 27

Dear Diary,

I rode Page to school on the handlebars of my bike because the Z doesn't have an airbag turn-off switch, and she refused to ride in the trunk. Turning in the Z today, and packing for trip to Mississippi.

May 28

Dear Diary,

Spent all day waiting for planes and missing connections. Finally landed in Jackson, Miss., at 9:30 p.m. Tomorrow a bunch of us journalists are going to tour Nissan's new $1.4 billion assembly plant in Canton, Miss., then test drive the new Quest Minivans they're building there.

May 29

Dear Diary,

What a day. After touring the Nissan plant and driving the Quest, which I'll tell you about later, I got to test drive the new 350Z roadster. Wow! What a difference a little sun and wind in the face make. The Touring model convertible felt smoother and more luxurious than the Track model. It has very little cowl shake; and it looks great. To make it all the sweeter, the Nissan guys said they're upgrading the interior for the 2004 Z. So I feel much better about this car. Still, it could use a glove box.

May 30

Dear Diary,

Home now. Greeted by message from Steve, who ordered a Z! Speaking of which, my Z review is due in three hours and I haven't even started.

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